I paint with the stubbornness I need for living.
-Suzanne Valadon

I think there’s a vein of stubbornness in you.

That's a good thing!

Especially if your stubbornness rears its head when you’ve just about given up, when the curve ball has knocked the breath out of your lungs, and you think the worst must finally be over… and it is not.

The person I've quoted, Suzanne Valadon, is stubborn. My protagonist, Johanna, has just met Suzanne in the chapter I wrote last week.  

Suzanne was a French painter who broke into the ranks of her male post-Impressionism peers and was recognized in her lifetime. She lived in Paris at the same time as Vincent van Gogh. She is the first woman painter invited to join the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, a society of artists that organized to show exhibits independently of what I think of as the Red-tape Art Establishment of the late 19th century (aka Paris Salon).

At the time Suzanne meets Jo in my novel she has just started to paint. 

At their first meeting, they don’t have a lot in common. Johanna grew up in a sheltered, upper-middle-class household in Holland, a country that sat like a side street between the pulse-pounding cultural competition between Paris and London. Jo was well-educated and her upbringing followed societal rules of respecting the separate spheres men and women inhabited. 

In contrast, Suzanne was raised by an unmarried mother in the poor outskirts of Paris. As a little girl, she worked alongside her mom — among her jobs was as a laundress and in a milliner's shop. She went to school until about age 11. She then quit to make her own way, including joining the circus as an acrobat. At 15, she fell from a trapeze, injuring herself so that she had to quit. However, at the circus she had met some artists, including Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and decided to move to the Montmartre artist community in Paris where she took up work as a model. 

Over the next decade it was through this modeling work that Suzanne became intrigued with art and began to draw and paint herself. This self-taught education gave her artwork a freedom from following a specific style. The female figures she drew weren't as idealized as the ones male artists painted, preferring to draw and paint the reality she experienced. 

At the time I have the women meet in the book, Jo has been getting pelted by curve balls (I love my book coach saying to me, “Think of the worst thing that could happen to Jo” - so I do!) Jo needs some role models to encourage her to keep forging ahead and to discover the mis-beliefs that are holding her back.  When I came across Suzanne in my research, I was thrilled. Suzanne has the authenticity to really challenge Jo’s view of herself.  

Stubbornness, rebellion, independence, bravery --  Jo will need all of this. 

Once I started to reflect on these qualities, more role models have caught my attention. 

  • One is the comedian Hannah Gadsby in the Netflix special, Nanette, a stand-up routine Hannah does before a live audience in Sydney. This one-minute trailer gives you a hint of it. What starts out as typical funny routine becomes suspenseful and angry and heartbreaking and compelling. Hannah's dialogue has peeled away artifice or acting. It’s the first time I’ve witnessed such a tour de force. It brought tears to my eyes. My friend Cyd alerted me to it, and it is so worth seeing.

  • The second is a friend who at her work is facing down the sabotage of insecure bosses by standing up for herself with truth. The honor she ascribes to herself -- her self-respect -- inspires me. When you beat back the fear and side with truth, you find strength. How many times have I not stood up for myself when I should have?

So, these two women shine in my thought as role models for me to attempt to write into Johanna. She has a lot to overcome. I think Suzanne can help her. 

Stack of books I'm researching on the 19th century, and Suzanne Valadon in her studio in 1925. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Extended the Plot. While plugging away writing a few weeks ago, a sneaky little feeling began to grow larger. For awhile now, I've been ruminating on whether the "ah-ha" moment I'd planned would work, because in this climax Jo has not yet sold a Van Gogh painting - not yet. I wondered whether this omission would be too disappointing to the reader (since we know that ultimately that's her legacy)? This niggly doubt kept popping up on the periphery of my mind. So, to address this, I drew in a deep breath and took a shot at extending the novel, digging into more of Jo's past to identify the tent-post experiences that would lead her to a different, big moment. I think I got it. The book is still targeted to be about the same length of 300 or so pages. This week I'm writing chapter 10. 

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors. As a recommendation from my W4 Book Club, I recently read Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate. It's based on the real-life story of Georgia Tann and how her Memphis Tennessee Children's Home Society was set up to steal and sell children into adoption. The book is chilling as told through the eyes of its 12-year-old heroine. Wingate is a master at storytelling; the suspense and pace kept me up reading late into the night, and, even though it's sad, there is redemption. 

It's been 100-degrees hot in the midwest this month. My mom, sister and I are speeding out of the heat next week with a 10-hour road trip up to my brother and sister-in-law's house in Three Lakes, Wisconsin. Gorgeous towering pines, glass-surface still lakes, sweatshirt-cool mornings...my Macbook and I will be tapping out words to the call of loons. Meanwhile, next up with Cristina's wedding planning is a KC trip to the florist to design flowers. I can't wait! But Juan said he'll sit this trip out. What??

Here's a final quote attributed to Suzanne. Perhaps it will be written as dialogue for her to say to Jo:

I had great masters. I took the best of them of their teachings, of their examples.
I found myself. 
I made myself, and I said what I had to say. 

In Therese Diamond Rosinky's book, Suzanne Valadon

Are you saying what you need to say?

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